Art is subjective. Individuals find themselves attracted to a certain artist, style, or theme when looking for art to inspire positive thought and decor. Upon finding the piece they consider, “just right,” one may seek to understand more about the particular picture or genre of art. However, they contrive their thoughts from a combination of what they already know, research, and see with their own two eyes.
In the early 1900’s this thought process was used to develop a new kind of art — completely subjective in form. It received the title, “op-art,” or optical art. This fresh form of art, not seen before the 20th century, used paint to create an interaction between a lively illusion and a picture plane, which is the flat canvas. Much of the art first produced in this genre (and some of the better known pieces) use only black and white paint or ink. As the art form expanded throughout the century, other elements of color and design were added.
This genre quickly evolved but remained true to its core: op-art is a perceptual experience that derives from manipulating typical visual functions. By painting an illusion onto a flat canvas there is a juxtaposition between what the eye expects to see and what it actually takes in. This is known as the figure-ground relationship.
Such a relationship exists because of edge assessment. For instance, when the boarderlines of one shape can be applied to both the outside of the shape and inside of another, an illusion is created. When placing this illusion on a flat, two-dimensional material, like a canvas, a human’s eye is especially baffled and the individual is likely to see the painting from more than one perspective.
But not all optical illusions are works of art. When an artist strives to deliberately challenge an observer’s eye with this figure-ground relationship, op-art is the goal in mind. In fact, the foundational elements of creating an artistic illusion are simple lines and patterns. With the use of color, op-art expanded because it used certain colors to change how the retina perceived an overall image.
This did not happen until the mid 1900’s, even though many artists trained in the op-art technique showed interest in applying color to their contrasting figure-ground paintings much earlier. Artists like Josef Albers, Bridget Riley, and Julian Stanczak were eager to implement this element. Some time after color was introduced to op-art, photographers also became determined to produce op-art, in black and white, and in color photographs.
Op-art photography became popular in the 1970’s. However, this form of digital manipulation (that became easier with technological developments) lacked the foundational elements most important to op-art: Lines and patterns. For quite some time there was not enough subject matter for photographers to produce artistic illusions; lines and patterns were much easier to paint than capture.
This simplicity is what makes op-art a stroke of genius. It cannot be overlooked that the founders of this art, German artists who studied constructivist philosophy, believed thought provoking art could positively influence society. At the school of Bauhaus, where op-art first originated, great thinkers like Josef Albers developed a new way of seeing the world; by looking on both sides of the same line.
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